It was the perfect setting.
On the final leg of a jam-packed weekend traveling through Southern Italy, I found myself in Naples, sitting at a table clad in a white tablecloth with flowers and flickering candles lined down the center. A local performer appeared just minutes before, with his guitar in tow, and began to serenade the restaurant-goers in his rich baritone voice.
The scene was set, and history was about to be made.
This restaurant wasn’t just any restaurant. That Sunday afternoon I found myself at the exact pizzeria where the first pizza margherita was invented.
When the waiter came out holding “Her Majesty’s Pizza,” or as it is most commonly know as the pizza margherita, he handed me the vessel that was about to change my perception of not only pizza, but food in general.
This is not a dramatization.
It took just three, simple toppings to do it: fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, tomatoes as sweet as honey and three little leaves of basil all on top of a crust that was the perfect balance of thin and soft.
This life-changing experience in Naples happened exactly a month ago, yet I remember that pizza like it was yesterday. That experience opened my eyes to the beauty of Italian food.
The food options in Rome are endless. Just by walking down a main street in Trastevere one can easily pass dozens of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, gelaterias and bars.
In my first month abroad, I was a timid tourist. It was tempting to wander into restaurants on the main touristy streets, and more often than not, I found myself attracted to the restaurants whose signs advertised in English.
Don’t get me wrong, the food was good, but I had barely scratched the culinary surface Italy provides.
As my time in Rome has progressed and I’ve become more adventurous, I have learned two rules that have served me well: The further off the beaten path, the more authentic the food is. And if you can’t fully understand the menu, that is a good thing.
One of my favorite examples of this rule is the discovery of a little authentic Italian bakery called Antonini’s.
About a month and a half ago, my friends Ana, Emily and I set off to find a bakery that came highly recommended by Ana’s family friend.
Between two of my Wednesday classes, we plugged the address into a GPS and went on an adventure.
Starting out in Trastevere, we found ourselves passing the Vatican, walking by shops we never knew existed and finally reaching a quiet, residential neighborhood. As we made our way closer and closer to the bakery, the number of tourists and touristy shops began to decrease. Forty-five minutes later, we found ourselves in front of a window filled with mouth-watering, authentic and handmade cakes and pastries.
We had arrived.
The moment we walked into the bakery, we became immersed in a true, local Italian setting. We were the only Americans in the bakery among the hustle and bustle of lunch hour. When I began speaking in my shaky Italian to order my bite-sized cream puffs and cookies, the woman behind the counter didn’t automatically switch to English, something I commonly experienced in Trastevere. For those 10 minutes, we were able to shed our labels as American visitors and become three of the locals.
Needless to say, the array of tiramisu, cream puffs, artisan cookies and fruit tarts were to die for. They were delicious enough, in fact, to be worth the hour-and-a-half round-trip adventure that has become our Wednesday tradition — rain or shine.
The Italian culinary experience doesn’t just end with the food dishes. I have come to learn there is no better way to make friends than over a plate of pasta alla carbonara on a rainy weekend day, laughing over a gelato outing gone terribly wrong or making weekly homemade dinners using fresh ingredients from the markets.
Food is a prominent facet of the Italian culture, and it has the ability to bring people together. A meal doesn’t have to end when the food is finished and the plates have been cleared. In some cases, the dining experience has just begun. There is nothing better than sipping on wine, reflecting on the meal you have just had, conversing with your dining mates and just talking about everything under the sun.